The Internal Source of Genius: Contrast passages from Emerson’s essays with students’ expectations about what “genius” is and where it comes from. Unlike many other theories of genius circulating in romantic thought (which understood genius as singular and rare), Emerson’s advice to readers as potential geniuses suggests that anyone who thinks and acts according to inner instincts has the potential for greatness. Achieving this greatness is transcendental since it connects individuals to what Emerson identifies as a universal potential of humanity.
- For discussion: Consider having your students free-write in response to one or more of the following questions (especially before they read Emerson’s essay): Is there such a thing as genius? Are geniuses born or made? Who decides what counts as “greatness”? How, if at all, are you connected to geniuses of the past?
The Value of Nonconformity: Emerson argues that social conformity (or what we might now call peer-pressure) inhibits achieving greatness. Society and its institutions amount to a form of censorship because individuals make concessions to the group. Nonconformity requires self-emancipation; one precisely cannot count on change from the outside or through social means; individuals must actively pursue their best selves.
- For discussion: What risks are involved with the common advice to “be yourself”? What compromises are students willing to make to please other people? How do students balance conflicting impulses to “fit in” and “stand out”?
Build Connections Between Transcendentalism and Today: Ideas about American selfhood run so deep and bubble up so perennially that the essay stays accessible. If you feel hip-hop is relatable to your students and that you can talk about the genre credibly without seeming like you’re just doing it to seem “cool,” then that genre can be a fantastic touchpoint because the typical bravado of the rapper fits into the themes of the essay—especially when contextualized or complicated by aspects of hip-hop production, like the major recording labels and (often white) executives who shape and profit from that medium of “expression.” Formal components of hip-hop, like sampling, are also relevant. Macklemore’s “White Privilege” and Drake’s “Started From the Bottom Now We’re Here” are just two examples of texts that might provoke discussion from your students. Alternatively, recent ire over millennials is also something students might have a lot to say about. Social media and accusations of the self-obsessed generation (“snowflakes”) are quintessential re-bubblings of controversies over some the ideas in Emerson’s essay.
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Consider using students’ experiences keeping journals, diaries, or blogs to help understand how Emerson’s drawing from his journal might tie to the themes of his essay.
- Draw from students’ experience in lecture settings to think about how Emerson’s message might differ if they heard it in a group versus reading it privately.
- Ask how reading more than one of Emerson’s essays complicates common misunderstandings about his ideas. After reading “History,” can we still say that Emerson promotes unqualified individualism in “Self-Reliance”?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Emerson’s Universal Humanity Draws From Limited Examples: Once conversations about genius in the essay get started, one or more students may realize and point out that all of Emerson’s examples are male. This presents a legitimate question about how Emerson imagines universality, and bringing it into the classroom can spur important conversations about inclusion, further exploration of the transcendentalist social scene, and connections to additional reading.
- What to do: One option is to come prepared with additional knowledge about some of Emerson’s female contemporaries who engaged in different ways with questions about gender at the time; these include Margaret Fuller (especially her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century ), Harriet...
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- Martineau, Lydia Maria Child, and Emily Dickinson. These examples can widen or complicate students’ ideas about transcendentalism.
- What to do: Another option is to embrace the criticism itself as an example of the essay’s argument. Pointing out and pushing past the masculine conventions in Emerson’s essay (whether they were intentional on his part or not) actually fulfills the advice Emerson is giving—it would be a mistake (according to the essay) to treat Emerson himself as an authority impervious from challenging. Have students find quotations in Emerson’s essay that support the need to expand our consciousness about humanity and move beyond conventional authorities (as various forms of feminism necessitate).
Emerson’s Challenges to Individualism/Originality Are Difficult to Recognize: One of the best-known quotations in “Self-Reliance” makes the tension clear: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Readers are likely to take the initial imperative as a call to individualist affirmation, but that would be contradicted by the relation to “every heart” that immediately follows it, and even the metaphor of vibration which would suggest harmony if not outright unison.
- What to do: Resist the temptation to discuss the ideas without close attention to their stylistic expression. Deceptively simple sentences become profitable occasions for close reading while students work through the relationships between “self” and “society” in the essay.
Emerson’s Writing Sometimes Uses Strange Syntax: The primary sticking point for many students is the combination of Emerson’s style with the complexity of his philosophical arguments.
- What to do: Consider assigning students sections that they can translate into other, more familiar genres. This is a useful tool to spur comprehension prior to engaging ideas on a more critical plane. By working on comprehending a paragraph or short sequence of paragraphs, students can feel less intimidated about the whole essay.
- What to do: Even if students stay resistant to untangling some of Emerson’s knottier moments, discussing his punchiest and most quotable lines can lead to a productive discussion of the epigram as a genre. Epigrams are intentionally short so as to be memorable and even surprising, so students can link that stylistic choice to Emerson’s larger messages in the essay. As an additional benefit, discussion of the epigram as a device or genre can segue into conversations about concision and reminding students that sentences don’t have to be long or use “fancy words” to sound smart. Students will realize that a short sentence does not foreclose complexity.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Self-Reliance"
Explore Understanding Through Creative Rhetorical Choices: Have students create a series of inspirational posters or memes either quoting or paraphrasing Emerson’s essay, and ask them to turn in a written reflection that points to specific passages that support their choices of graphics and text.
Focusing Less on Analysis Than on Personal Reflection: Adolescence is often portrayed as a time of breaking away—particularly from one’s parents. Likewise, college is where many students will come into their own and make (sometimes unexpected) decisions about the shape of their futures. Even if students find themselves disagreeing with a given sentence or the essay as a whole, their lives might be in the process of enacting what Emerson is advocating. You can treat this essay as one argument about how to come into one’s own, and you can expand that conversation with your students by asking for any different cultural frames they bring to either the stage of adolescence or secondary education. This essay can be a starting point for conversations about your students’ choices to follow their heritage or to depart from their upbringing.
Mix Up Quotations for Advanced Comprehension: Readers of this essay will easily turn to some of its best-known lines, including:
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” “To be great is to be misunderstood.” “Insist on yourself; never imitate.”
These statements can fuel plenty of interesting conversation, but you can also mix things up by turning to the following, which will test students’ comprehension beyond the top hits they will find looking up the essay online. Consider assigning an essay that has students expand their comprehension by tying one of the above quotations to one of these lesser-known ones, and consider encouraging them to discuss these quotations with examples from current popular culture to further minimize plagiarism:
“But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness.” “If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?” “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” “We are parlour soldiers.” “Travelling is a fool’s paradise.” “All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.”
Tackle Controversy About America: Emerson’s essay has received some very pointed criticism from those who argue it promotes a sense of the self that represents some of America’s worst or most controversial qualities. Consider teaching such controversies head-on. One accessible and relatively short version would be Benjamin Anastas, whose 2011 piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ ” can provoke debate about whether his reading is a good one alongside the broader points of his analysis.